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Debating Students for Educational Reform: A Response | The Nation

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Campus-oriented news, first-person reports from student activists and journalists about their campus.

Debating Students for Educational Reform: A Response

On August 2, The Nation’s online portal for student opinions, Student Nation, ran a blog post by Columbia University undergraduate George Joseph, who has consistently attacked and made false statements about Students for Education Reform, an organization I co-founded as a sophomore at Princeton in 2009.

Almost immediately, there was an overwhelming response from SFER members on Twitter and social media calling on Joseph to tell their side of the story. Two of our members in our Los Angeles student coalition, both products of public schools, have submitted blog posts to StudentNation, and I am eager to see those run.

As co-founder of the organization, I admit that at first I was angry. Defamatory blog posts have appeared about our organization in the past—or even about me personally—and I have ignored them. But this time, seeing the righteous indignation and anger of our members, I felt that our members had been personally attacked. And yet… this debate is a hard one. I have found time and again that when students’ lives are at stake, the debate can turn bombastic. I understand that when students demand a system different than the status quo, it can seem radical. The debate can become heated.

Across the country, I have seen hundreds of SFER members enter the classroom as teachers, volunteer as tutors, partner with parents and community leaders to run events to engage local communities in our schools, and testify in state legislatures to tell their personal stories. I’d hope that soon, The Nation might write a post covering some of these events.

But right now, I’d like to respond to Joseph’s article. I’d rather talk about our members and their stories—but Joseph has asked me to respond to the inaccuracies. As a rising senior in college, as a founder of a nonprofit whose principles I believe in, as an aspiring teacher, as a leader of a movement whose students inspire me every day, I refuse to listen quietly to these defamatory statements. I have taken the time to go through Joseph’s blog post line by line.

In the post, Joseph calls us a “corporate group.” He implies our members support a “privatization agenda.” He implies our members cannot possibly be informed enough to choose to be part of our movement.

At Students for Education Reform, we believe that the ability for students to choose an excellent public school is a fundamental civil right. By generically conflating school choice with a “privatization agenda,” Joseph reveals his bias against student choice in the first line of his post. In addition, I wonder if The Nation, by running Joseph’s piece, has revealed its own bias.

The blog post vastly oversimplifies SFER’s mission and principles. We do support the ability of students to choose the right school, whether district-run or charter-run—that’s a fact. But Joseph makes a jump in rhetoric to then falsely claim that the mission of our organization is to promote the charter movement. Nowhere have we made statements or taken actions supporting a single silver-bullet solution such as a school governance model.

To many of our SFER members, some of whom are young parents themselves and many of whom are the products of school choice programs, the ability to choose a school is a civil right, not the “fashionable” privatizing initiative that Joseph so dismissively calls it. It saddens us to see The Nation diminish the struggles of our student members and their parents to choose a quality school.

Students for Education Reform has never received money nor will ever accept money from a PAC or a Super PAC. In fact, nonprofits legally cannot take money from a political action fund. We encourage Joseph to do his research before making such claims. And furthermore, by implying that our members are somehow “controlled by a corporate agenda,” Joseph implies that they are not intelligent enough to tell their own stories from personal experience in the public schools. The dozens of SFER members who have taken to Twitter to share their stories since the post was published indicate otherwise.

Many of our students who are aspiring teachers are disappointed to hear The Nation accuse us of taking an “anti-union” position. Our students have never taken an anti-union stance. We have at times supported policies also endorsed by local and state teachers unions, including the current school funding ballot initiative in Colorado, for which our members have collected over 15,000 signatures. We have also at times taken stances that differs from the union’s position, such as when our Connecticut members supported a bill expanding pre-K, supporting more meaningful teacher evaluations and creating funding equity for charter schools. Our members are independent and choose a policy agenda that they believe will lead to greater equity and opportunity for students. Taking a policy stance different than that of a union does not mean our members are “anti-union.” I personally find the “pro-reform vs. pro-union” or “corporate vs. union” rhetoric tired and unhelpful.

The writer states that SFER pretends to be an “open discussion group”—that’s incorrect for a number of reasons. Our organizing model goes far beyond being a debate society. Instead, we empower and support the individual stories and values of our members who attended local public schools. We encourage the writer to hear these real student voices on Twitter at #realSFERvoices. Our members tell stories speaking from personal experiences—often from exposure to educational inequity in their own lives and communities. We encourage The Nation to ask our members whether, at any time, SFER’s donors played a role in their motivations to join SFER or shaped their beliefs in education politics and policy.

Much of the writer’s blog post focuses on our work in Chicago. While we understand the writer chooses that city as his focus, we believe it presents a skewed picture of our movement given that our students are most active in Los Angeles, Minnesota, Louisiana, New Jersey, Massachusetts and North Carolina. Had the writer contacted any of our students beyond his hand-picked disgruntled former members in Chicago, he would have learned that the majority of our members and chapter leaders attended local public schools, identify as students of color and, for many, are the first in their family to attend college.

In Chicago, our former program director, with our support, did invite both a teacher and a spokesperson from the mayor’s office to discuss the teacher’s strike. We were glad to hear the number of perspectives on the strike, including the perspectives of our own members such as Christina Lamas, who attended Chicago Public Schools and published an op-ed about the strike.

We have had one staff transition in Chicago, but the writer’s speculation about the reasons for the transition is petty and borders on defamation. We call on the writer to retract his statement implying that the reason for the transition was related to the program director’s personal views about the CTU strike. At no time did the writer reach out to us for comment on that personnel decision. At no time did the writer contact our new Illinois program director, Tanesha Peeples, herself an alum of Chicago Public Schools and an experienced community organizer. We would hope that next time, Tanesha and our Chicago student members and leaders would have an opportunity to tell their stories.

The outside observer reading George Joseph’s post may assume him to be an unbiased reporter. In fact, it’s important to note that he is a blogger with a prior bias against Students for Education Reform. If Joseph wants to position himself as a reporter rather than blogger, then we call on him to reveal his personal stance on education policy issues before writing blatantly slanted posts defaming our organization. We call on him to reveal that he is a close personal friend of Stephanie Rivera, one of the founders of Students United for Public Education, a group praised by Diane Ravitch and other critics of student and parent choice. We call on him to reveal that he has rallied against our members and has a long-standing vendetta against our organization, which he has demonstrated in his prior—similarly slanted and misleading—blog posts and comments that indicate his disdain for our members’ personal stories. I have no problem with Joseph’s opposition to SFER, but I do have a problem with him pretending to be an unbiased reporter.

Finally, Joseph focuses on a few chapters who have disaffiliated from our large national coalition, jumping to the false conclusion that there is a “rebellion” within. I am happy to address this conclusion—I find it dramatized and overblown. We have no problem with student groups deciding that they have a different mission, and we support disaffiliation at any time. Our members believe in taking action based on personal stories and values, for example, and if a student group chooses to position itself as a discussion or a debate society then we are happy for them to chart their own course.

We are proud to have a unique student organizing model with a mission, principles and core values. We’re also proud of the diversity of student voices and stories within our movement, and of the deliberation process our members go through before taking action. What’s so exciting and inspiring about our student-led movement is that every chapter is different, yet shares a core commitment to our mission and model. As a movement, our strength lies in the independence and unique approach taken by each chapter; our ability to create positive change for kids lies in our commitment to each other to be a movement and take collective action. But we understand that approach isn’t for everyone, and are supportive of chapters that decide to branch off. Over the past two years, student clubs at Wesleyan, Haverford, University of Chicago and DePaul have disaffiliated, and we have supported that decision.

I have a lot of respect for all the former chapter leaders at those schools who have disaffiliated and remain friends with many. It’s always a tough call, but we support our leaders who choose not to affiliate with our national coalition. We have over 130 individual, independent campus chapters, and we believe it is healthy—and in fact, demonstrates our chapters’ independence—for a handful to disaffiliate each year, just as new chapters regularly join.

But let us be defined by those who are a part of us, rather than those who are not. Let our members like Kevin Sanchez and Miledy Hernandez, who submitted blog posts to The Nation, be heard. Let readers at The Nation know that we are a movement of diverse voices, diverse stories and diverse backgrounds.

We encourage readers of The Nation to see the diverse movement our members have built. Over the next few weeks, follow us at @sfernational on Twitter and see the pictures we post, the articles our members write, the testimony they give, the events we plan. Come see our good work for yourselves. I think you’ll be impressed.

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